Christmas Celebrations in Tanzania
Nearly one-third of Tanzanians are Christian, so Christmas in Tanzania is a big deal – but it’s not so much about the buy buy buy frenzy that occurs elsewhere. But it does share the global tradition of families getting together because many Tanzanian families are separated for much of the year, with parents and grandparents living back in villages and the young far away in towns and cities.
So it’s a special time for families, and with most vacation starting two weeks before Christmas, you’ll see people on the road, heading back to villages to share Christmas with mum, dad and grandma. Here’s what happens in Tanzania at Christmas time:
1. Family get-togethers
Like many families the world over, Tanzanian families get together for Christmas. It’s a time of catching up, feasting, quarrelling, playing and chilling out. But, in a culture where it’s not easy to meet up throughout the year, it’s a perfect opportunity for the family to get to know a new family member such a new wife, husband or child, and also reconnect with extended family like long lost cousins and great aunties.
A few days before Christmas there’s a frenzy as Christmas decoration are taken out of boxes, dusted down and put up. Many decorations are made from recycled materials like recycled bottles (check out Shanga.org, an Arusha-based social enterprise company which employs artists with disabilities to create beautiful decorations and other lovely things. Buy something – you know you want to!).
3. Slaughtering (veggies, look away now)
Being a celebration, families will often buy a cow or goat in January just to feed it up in time for Christmas. It’s traditional to kill the animal on Christmas Eve and prepare its supu (offal) and makorongo (legs) to eat that evening.
4. Beer. And lots of it.
Many villages brew their own beer (imagine a microbrewery in each village!) and whole tribes create their own brands. For instance, the Chagga tribe brews Mbege, brewed from bananas and sprouted millet, which has a wine-like quality. The beer comes out on Christmas Eve to accompany the meat, and we’d be lying if we said that everyone stays sober.
5. New clothes
It’s a custom to kit out children with new clothes at Christmas time – whether these have been bought at a market (and of course the prices are hiked up during the run up to Christmas) or hand-sewn from a pattern based on existing clothes or something different. Children expect new clothes at Christmas and it’s an exciting time for them so parents always try their best not to disappoint! For some children, these are the only new clothes they receive all year. Toys aren’t such a big deal and are no-frills, simple toys like balls and balloons (and, frankly, we think traditional toys are more fun!)
6. Church on Christmas Day
Going to church on Christmas Day is very common and many people leave home early in the morning, dressed up in new clothes, to celebrate in the community. The church service can take up much of the morning with some services as long as two hours, but you’ll be back in time for lunch.
7. Christmas songs
Christmas means a whole lot of singing, too! Children sing traditional Christmas songs in Swahili and there are also carols sung in English, too. Everyone will sing Christmas songs during the church service and afterwards, too.
One of the most popular song lyrics is:
Noelia Noelia, utukufu kwa yesu… kriss masinje kwa ulimwengu mzima.
Noel, noel, praise be to Jesus….happy Christmas across the world.
8. Christmas dinner
What is Christmas without Christmas dinner? In Tanzania, some meals are venerated and preparing and eating them is a sign of a REALLY good Christmas. Swahili Pilau – spicy rice’n’meat – and chapati are traditional fare. Don’t forget to try making it for yourself – see our recipe below. It’s a secret family recipe.
As well as beer, soda is a popular drink at Christmas and many Tanzanian adults have fond memories of their mum and dad buying crates of soda for Christmas time. Want your kid to love you forever? Get in some Fanta!
It’s not just about food and drink. Christmas dinner in Tanzania is about a family getting together and sharing a meal, making happy memories and caring for each other.
Recipe for Florence’s Swahili Pilau
- Beef, cubed
- Garlic cloves
- Cardamom pods
- Vegetable oil
- Chopped onion
- Basmati rice
- Whole black peppercorns
- Whole cloves
- Cinnamon sticks
- Ground ginger
- Cumin seed powder
- Tomatoes (optional)
- Boil the meat in salted water until tender.
- Crush the garlic and cardamom together using a mortar and pestle and mix with 2 tbsp water.
- Sauté the onion until it’s golden
- Add the rice, meat, garlic and cardamom mixture, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and cumin seed powder to the onion.
- Cover and cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until the mixture is golden brown.
- Add the tomatoes and stir until the tomatoes are thoroughly cooked down to the consistency of a sauce.
- Add the water, bring to the boil and then cover and cook over very low heat for about 15-20 minutes until all water is absorbed and the rice is cooked through.